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Voices: The living owe past generations who worked for a better tomorrow

Mike Schwinden

In the autumn of 2020, as we approach an important election, it is easy to be discouraged, confused, frustrated, pessimistic and even bitter. Perhaps a closer inspection of the past will shed some light on the present and even more light on our future. It is estimated that in our past 107 billion humans have lived on planet earth — including the 7 billion who live among us today.

Consider the lives of the 100 billion of our ancestors who have died. For 99% of them life was very hard — actually beyond hard, perhaps intolerable. They suffered plagues and pestilence and persecution — but they endured. They shivered in the cold and wilted in the heat — but they endured. They shared living space with rats and mice, scratched at lice and fleas and went to bed exhausted and hungry — but they endured.

They were vassals and peasants and serfs and servants and slaves and outcasts — but they endured. They arose day after dreary day to toil in the fields, the forests, the pastures, the mines and the deserts. From sunrise to sunset they built stone walls, dug trenches, butchered animals, stitched, weaved, harvested, and were forced to construct monuments to monarchs and despots — but they endured. They suffered dungeons, beatings, lashes, bondage, flames, humiliations and mutilations, nooses and beheadings — but they endured. Every day was long and arduous and punishing. Their only vacation from the grinding torment was the grave — but they endured.

They had broken bones that were not set, fevers unchecked, joints swollen and painful, teeth that rotted, sores that festered, and diseases, even pandemics, that decimated families — but they endured. Parents buried as many children as they nurtured to independence, often more. Men and women were middle-aged at 15 and old at 30 — but they endured.

In the midst of famines, plagues, pogroms, purges, and nature’s calamities they were forced to wage war on one another until every parcel of land, in every tyrant’s domain, was soaked with the blood of obedient adolescent soldiers and innocent families — but they endured.

They shed tears and sweat and blood at the hands, and for the benefit, of kings, queens, emperors, tsars, chieftains, caliphs, maharajas, sheiks, and pharaohs. At ten thousand points in time it would have been forgivable, even understandable, for the 99% to give up, perish, and force royalty and nobility to build their own castles and mausoleums— but they endured.

Somehow children found the motivation to play games, laugh and be curious. Somehow teenagers found each other and thrilled to the ecstasy of young love. Somehow disheartened adults formed bonds and friendships sufficient to share stories, songs, shelter and food until there was nothing left to share, at which point they shared courage, comfort and hope.

Our ancestors did not surrender to torture, hardship, bondage, deprivation, maladies and afflictions. Instead, their perseverance brought us to the 20th century which saw the doubling of the human lifespan due to vaccinations, disinfection, and antibiotics and the advances of science and medicine. By the dawn of the 21st century there was less hunger and more literacy than at any point in human history, but clearly there is more to be done to improve the human experience here and abroad.

The departed 100 billion have gone to a place beyond time and space but, in their enduring, they left behind an expectation and a legacy. Surely they have a right to expect us, the living, to move humanity’s condition far beyond endurance toward a horizon more noble and principled and just. They also left us the means: their strength and resilience and spirit and, equally important, the will to confront both the lurking demons in our nature and the efforts at domination by despotic aspirants of today.

Mike Schwinden, son of Montana’s 19th governor, is a 4th generation Montanan from Wolf Point, currently living in Boston.